An unlikely source of comfort

I always have music on in the background at work, but this week I’ve taken to having episodes of Mayday: Air Crash Investigation.  I was home sick yesterday and again today, so I’ve been plowing through the episodes.

“But JT” I can hear you saying.  “Don’t you fly a couple times a month at least?  Doesn’t that seem like a silly thing to do?”

You would think so at first.  But I’m actually learning quite a bit.  I’ve learned that the rule in airplane construction is that every system must be fail safe with redundant back ups.  For something to go wrong on a plane requires either huge fuck ups on the part of the pilot or a huge amount of bad luck.

Also, it’s amazing how often people survive even when those rare occasions of insane bad luck occur.  A good example is Air Transat flight 236 which ran out of fuel over the Atlantic and also lost control of their flaps, breaks, and spoilers.  They still managed to glide 65 miles and land safely.

Another episode depicted United Airlines flight 232.  In this case a catastrophic failure in its tail-mounted engine caused the throwing of shrapnel at precisely the right angle to sever the hydraulics and both redundant backups.  This deprived the pilots of the ability to control the plane.  It also prevented them from dropping the landing gears by conventional means.  They managed to get the back landing gears into place via a gravity drop, but were traveling too fast to secure the forward landing gear.  They landed the plane by adjusting the thrust in both engines to turn/steer.  185/296 passengers survived.

So watching these documentaries has actually had the opposite effect.  I feel much more comfortable flying to Kansas this weekend for Reasonfest.  I know how rare systems failures on airplanes are and I also know that chances of survival are still decent even if multiple systems fails against the odds.

Of course, there’s no preparing for something like this…

Update and pics from #AACon15. MST3K cast members were at my talk.
You guys are wonderful.
PERSONAL: Mid day lab pics from the wife.
PERSONAL: Happy birthday, Hitch.
About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • otocump

    I took a few years of Aircraft Skin and Structure Repair in college. (Never did work in the industry so I’m no expert) We did case studies on almost every episode out at the time. At the end of each we did a ‘what did the industry learn from this’ then usually went out and built whatever mechanical changes were, or went through the paper work controls of what went wrong in that way.
    We didn’t deal with a lot of the ‘pilot error’ issues because we aren’t pilots, but we did still case them because they are a great glimpse into the ‘Human Factors’ which is HUGE in this biz.
    After seeing all this and more, knowing exactly how and what in almost every type of common aircraft can go wrong…I feel the safer flying then I do driving!
    Its amazing the level of detail even the most basic of parts on an aircraft has to be inspected, detailed, LOGGED, and inspected again. I have an I-Beam I constructed from naught but three sheets of aircraft aluminum that I can use to prop my car up on to change tires…and the I-Beam weighs less then 3 lbs!!!

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    As my grandfather used to say: “If God had intended people to fly, he’d never have let us invent the railroad.”

  • Daniel Fincke

    I was home sick yesterday and again today

    ME TOO!

  • fastlane

    Hey JT. I’m an aircraft structural engineer by trade. If you have any questions about what goes into building/designing/operating commercial or private (I’ve had very limited experience on the military side) aircraft, feel free to ask.

    It looks like you’ve got a good layman’s understanding, though.

    The FAA regulations have evolved over the years (and slowly continue to do so) as we learn more about the various factors that cause accidents, and aging aircraft. In engineering, (like science) there are specific meanings of some terms like failsafe that might not mean what the common use of a term means. I’d be happy to discuss any questions, either publicly or privately.

    slight aside: I’m not sure if it’s still touring, or maybe it’s available on DVD somewhere, but there was a travelling live show called Charlie Victor Romeo (CVR – Cockpit Voice Recorder) that was absolutely fantastically done. The actors actually learned the lines from the cockpit voice recorders and re-enacted some of the more famous (infamous?) aircraft incidents from the last 30 years or so. Quite well done, I got the chills several times during the performance.

  • P Smith

    One of the most amusing stories of the TV series was the “Gimli Glider” (season 5, episode 2) and the large number of things that went both wrong and right.

    The episode of the TV show leaves out the final part of the story, which is another hilarious piece of happenstance. Read the full story here:

    I actually experienced one of the phenomenon shown in season 5, a microburst. Coming into Hong Kong during a thunderstorm, the plane was descending as it usually did. Suddenly the engines went to full power, and five seconds later the plane massively dropped in elevation in a second. (100 metres? 200?) I lost my lunch because of it, but the plane stayed in the air and landed safely an hour behind schedule.

    I’d rather be late (as in, miss an appointment) than late (as in dead).